Monthly Archives: November 2016

Photography, by James E Garratt (updated March, 2017)

November 17, 2016.

Hello, thanks for visiting. Since you’ve asked, a little background:

I’ve been active in photography for about fifty years. Most of that time, of course, involved old-fashioned film photography. I had the full range of equipment, from junk snap+shoot ‘brownies’, to range-finders, and finally SLR cameras in both 35mm and medium formats. I did all my own black & white darkroom work, often with makeshift arrangements (ie. closet). img_20161112_100241_editI also took countless 35mm colour slides, principally of outdoor nature in areas of the Scarborough Bluffs, Lake Ontario, Haliburton and many more remote locals in Ontario.

I sold and used some of these photos in various publications (including my 2000 book about the Rouge Valley). As important (for me), I’ve used them to illustrate numerous presentations I’ve made to various groups over the years. I presently have several projects on the go that will make further use of these photos, including a book about the Scarborough Bluffs and Lake Ontario.

I watched bemused as the whole film photography scene seemed to disappear with the quick emergence of digital imagery. I adapted and now dapple in digital photography, mostly with cell phone cameras. But I have found that computers play too large a role in digital imagery. I’ve also found – as have many other people – that more and easier imagery does not equal better or more valuable imagery.

I do recognize and value the undeniable strengths of digital photography, particularly for scientific purposes.

A main desirable quality from my viewpoint, is the widely-touted role that digital processes have played in reducing environmental impacts of old-fashioned photography, largely by eliminating film-processing chemicals and water-wastage. Yet even here I question the actual net gain: Over a complete life-cycle analysis, is digital still environmentally more desirable, especially when you consider the warehouses and dumps already full of obsolete digital equipment?

Furthermore, art is an human endeavour. And the proliferation of automated tools and techniques on the digital side, does not seem, at least to me, to equate with what might be hoped for in terms of a new, widespread artistic renaissance.

I’ve been encouraged recently by film-photography’s tenacity. Similar to other aspects of the so-called old-fashioned analog era (say, vacuum tubes in top-end music gear), film imagery is growing into a more than niche activity. The neat thing too, is that tons of what was originally prohibitively expensive gear is presently available to the careful haunter of second-hand shops.

Careful use of modern chemistry, washing aids, resin-coated paper; and, especially, film photography’s greatly downsized reality, all help to minimize its environmental footprint today. Furthermore, small quantities of spent photo-chemicals can be retained on-site until they oxidize and are thus rendered inert.

Anyone getting back(?) into film should have a specific focus in mind, otherwise obstacles along the way will defeat you. For myself, that means embracing the strengths and what were once thought of as weaknesses, of film photography.

By taking advantage of the used marketplace, I’ve managed to get into Large Format 4×5 b&w photography, once an out-of-reach fantasy. I found a 1947 Crown Graphic camera, and a Beseler 45 mxcr enlarger. The Graphic is a great field camera. It’s possible to forego darkroom printing entirely by purchasing a high-tech scanner/printer and digitizing the negatives – a kind of new/old hybrid approach.

In Large Format, a single exposure (resulting in a b&w negative) can take an hour or more of work in the field, and I usually only carry four 4×5 films. Several more hours of close attention in the darkroom, developing and printing, is followed by additional time spent hand-colouring each print (if such is desired)

I have not attempted Large Format colour films, as there are no sources of material or processing in my area. I’ve always preferred the control b&w allows. I should say, however, that a new start-up, New55film, is producing Large Format films; including, apparently, colour Polaroid. Looks interesting. Time will tell.

The time spent obtaining each large-format photo cultivates an attentive mode of procedure that is quite different from the ‘take as many as possible’ and ‘photo-shop later’ modus operandi of too much digital imagery. You want to get it right the first time.

The pay-off, too, resides in the technical capabilities of Large Format films themselves. Depending on the type of emulsion, a single old-fashioned 4×5 negative can contain far more information – more impressions of that elusive First Light – than the most powerful digital sensor commonly available. Resolution, and the nuances of tone and shading, are all potentially far beyond digital capabilities.

Large Format cameras themselves beat out their digital brethren in everything but speed and convenience. Lens and bed ‘movements’ provide subtle perspective adjustments that allow a photographer to capture a scene on-the-spot, as first visualized. In addition, the peculiar properties of relatively long-focus lenses (the norm in large format) create unique depth-of-field effects and realistic out-of-focus tonal shadings.

Although as indicated I’m working only in black and white with large format, this has opened the way to experimentation with traditional hand-colouring techniques. In fact, I was amazed to find vintage tip sheets from what might have been thought of as ‘staid old Kodak,’ suggesting all manner of substances for tinting photos. Wine, tea, coffee… anything may or may not work according to the old Kodak guidelines. Special photo-oils were once available for photo-retouching, but appear to have vanished. I was lucky to chance upon a vintage set of Prismacolour pencils in a junk store.¬†Here are examples of photos I’ve done in November, 2016, and tinted with these pencils. These illustrations are simple cellphone shots of the original 8×10 prints:

Waterfall Algonquin Park:img_20161118_214409_edit_edit_edit

Colouring process just starting on this print: img_20161115_224333_edit_edit

Colouring completed: Lane Beside the House,img_20161118_215344_edit_edit_edit_edit1_edit

Meadows and woodlots behind our house.img_20161102_000735_edit_edit_edit_edit

Trembling Aspen behind the house as evening comes:img_20161121_203950_edit_edit_edit

Golden Delicious Apple Tree beside the lane:img_20161119_103711_edit_edit_edit_edit

Fence-row near the house, early November:img_20161103_211018_edit_edit_edit_edit_edit_edit

Part 5: Tom Thomson the Artist (updated November 20, 2016)

Residing for the past thirty years in the Humber River Valley, within sight of the McMichael Gallery – that quintessential Thomson shrine – and canoeing a sizeable portion of Algonquin Park, has been more than slightly conducive to a close study of the works of Tom Thomson.

And, besides having an active personal interest in the artistic creative process, I have been inspired by my late sister Pat Garratt, who was an art historian (University of Guelph). We often talked about Thomson, and art in general. Pat noted that the life of a work of art could effectively come to an untimely end, once hung on a gallery wall. Her point was that art is at least a three-way mystery, dependent upon a viewer bringing new life, new wonder, and new love to the table.

The art of Tom Thomson is refreshed by each viewer who is surprised, often repeatedly, by the strength of communication that can occur in proportion to the depth and authenticity with which artist and viewer has/had contact with the third party – the ‘outer world’ – in this case Algonquin Park.

The loss or other unforeseeable diminution (aesthetic devaluation through undue veneration of urban environments and issues in some looming dystopia?) of Algonquin Park, would thus lead to an impoverishment of Thomson’s art. It would become more of a lonely academic exercise – humans speaking to humans.

Tom Thomson’s muse is certainly found in the Park. And he was undoubtedly predisposed psychologically to ‘be creative.’ His questing, restless ‘aloneness,’ and the temper of the times would have impelled him toward some kind of expression.

Yet many other people, aspiring artists included, have found themselves in similar straits, and have come up empty-handed.

What Tom Thomson had in spades – besides a little talent and luck – was willpower. The ‘will,’ with respect to human artistic creative process, is essentially mysterious, hidden within an individual’s invisible labyrinth. It enabled Tom to channel his energies in new, creative ways with successful, positive results within his allotted time.

I’ve already detailed some of Tom’s everyday gear and procedures. Within that context, it’s appropriate to look more closely at his painterly methods.

It’s immediately noticeable that Thomson liked the ‘shoulder seasons’ best. Earliest spring and late autumn reflected his palette and temperament. These times present obvious challenges to the outdoor artist.

In a recent spring (early May, 2016) we camped and canoed for a few days in Algonquin Park. Although the weather was pleasant and almost bug-free (it’s an art in itself to beat the black-fly hatch-out, usually second week in May), the chill air and water made us wonder how Thomson was able to paint in similar conditions. Exposed fingers quickly were numbed; small-motor muscle control and dexterity were impaired by the chill. To have picked up a brush, let alone focus on painting, would have distracted from the simpler concern of trying to keep hands warm.

Similarly on late fall Algonquin canoe trips, a pair of high-tech neoprene gloves seems appropriate to ward off the chill.

Yet quite a number of Tom Thomson’s sketches depict snow and ice in the bush or waterways.img_20160811_101639_edit

It’s wonderful how he could create these sketches amid the oft-choatic conditions of a rough wilderness camp, not to mention hand-numbing environmental conditions.

I would assert, too, that these ‘sketches’ were not quickly dashed-off in moments of bright inspiration. Rather, they are the products of prolonged and intense observation. Tips of icebergs, so-to-speak. Results of hours and days of collar-up, hand-numbing, dogged, apparently passive observation and experience, mysterious and unfathomable to the ‘normal’ uninitiate.